Palau may be remote. But as an island chain in the center of a triangle between Papua New Guinea, Guam, and the Philippines, its location has always been strategic.
Today, it's a magnet for tropical vacationers and a revered UNESCO World Heritage site. This string of over 500 islands, most uninhabited, was once administrated by Germany. It was taken over by the Japanese during WWII, then flourished as an American Trust Territory from 1947 to 1979 when the islands gained full sovereignty.
Tourism has become vital for the nation to move into the 21st century where abundant power and WiFi are prerequisites for success. But tourism has also brought Palau into the crosshairs of a new threat. China has made it illegal for its citizens to travel to Palau just as lodging, the airport, and tour operators have been expanding their services to accommodate Chinese tourists. And why is this Goliath penalizing the island David? Because Palau has officially recognized Taiwan.
The Chinese government promotes a "One China" policy. They don't see Taiwan as an independent nation but as a breakaway province, one which they would very much like to compel back into submission. The Taiwanese, for their part, claim to be the legitimate government of China in exile.
The Formosa Resolution (1955), in which the United States committed itself to defending Taiwan, prevents the Chinese government from conquering Taiwan by force. Instead, they have exercised soft power to undermine Taiwan for decades -- having Taiwan removed from the U.N. in 1971, punishing countries that recognize Taiwanese sovereignty, rewarding those that don't, etc.
However, for Westerners longing to snorkel in warm waters, experience a rich indigenous culture, or add to their UNESCO Heritage site visits, Palau is more alluring than ever. In fact, China's tourist war against Palau kind of makes this the perfect time to visit.
The Pacific Ocean archipelago is far for Western travelers to reach, but the simple beauties and rich culture of Palau make the distance forgettable. From the Pacific coast, Los Angeles flights land in Taipei or Hong Kong before switching to smaller airplanes which leave for the Roman Tmetuchl International Airport in Palau. Many visitors fly in from across Asia to enjoy the gentle waters.
President Remengesau declared most of Palau's territorial waters, the size of California, a marine sanctuary in 2015.
The UNESCO World Heritage wonders of the Rock Islands are truly breathtaking. Some of these tufted islands are barely more than boulders rising out of the sea, sheltering lagoons and abundant sea life. The mushroom-shaped islets protect inland waterways and all are uninhabited except for the National Park Headquarters at Dolphin Bay. Tourist and dive boats enter the glittering passageways and slow down to circle the more famous rock arches. They pass carefully beneath eroded limestone overhangs while sponges, snails, urchins, and other sea creatures graze on algae below the surface.
The Palau airport is connected by the Friendship Bridge to the main city of Koror, and from there hotels spread out, ringing the lagoons. Downtown has many small hotels and guest houses. The larger and more luxurious resorts are set closest to the dive sites. Those guests can saunter down to docks and onto dive and snorkeling boats while other guests shuttle in from dive operations in town.
What to do
On day trips out to the islands, guides happily point out caves where the Japanese once stashed gasoline cans during WWII. Before that war, Germans had settled in to invest in trade and education. They also blasted a trade route through the reefs. Once cleared, the German Channel in the Southern Islands helped to expedite deliveries of supplies and building materials. Today, long after the environmental damage has been done, the channel survives as a swift passage and divers wave as their boats pass between islands.
There are several small museums in downtown Koror. You can't miss the 3,000-foot Etpison Museum on the main street with its mountain-shaped profile and gigantic spider mural. One of the founding family members, Dutch-born, Mandy Thijssen Etpsion is also the Honorary Consul to France, and the building houses the French Consulate Office. This eclectic museum is packed with exhibits recreating Palau's early culture, plus displays of carvings, paintings, and traditional clothing. The top floor houses one of the largest gift shops on the island.
Tucked down a suburban road, not far from downtown, is the oldest museum in Micronesia. The Belau National Museum moved into its permanent home in 2005, close to the original Japanese Administration Weather Bureau.
Just outside the main entrance are two Bai structures. One is a miniature set in the circular drive, the other is a long tribal house in full regalia, painted and carved inside and out. Lucky visitors can enter without guides. The museum is a cool respite from the tropical heat, which makes investigating the floors of historical pictures and stories all the more compelling. There are ceremonial costumes, historical records, and a woodworker's gift shop. The small cafe offers coconut drinks and desserts along with other snack items.
Bai structures were originally meeting houses for tribal chieftains who would discuss war plans and community issues while sitting around the fire fires. In this matriarchal society, chiefs were appointed by women. The tradition continues today, although women now do much more than tend their gardens and select leaders.
Around the island, many of the tribal houses are open to visitors. Take a tour or hire a car to see them on an excursion around the biggest Palau island of Babeldaob. You can easily circumnavigate it in a day, and the roads are well maintained.
If you're an intrepid hiker don't miss the Ngatpang Waterfall.
Palau's tallest peak, Mount Ngerchelchauus, is 217 meters high and waters race down its face to the valley feeding into Micronesia's highest waterfall. There was once a small single rail ride down into the jungle, but now it sits rusting in the overgrowth. Reward yourself for the long, steamy hike down along a dense jungle trail with a dip in the cooling waters.
At the far end of the island is an archaeological park where large basalt monoliths dot a green hillside. The large heads have been compared to the carvings at Easter Island, though wind and rain have muted the features. From there, continue around the island to view the nation's capitol building. With columns and grand chandeliers, it echoes western monuments but look closer to see local mythological creatures carved into lintels and trim.
The Palau Pledge
Today, as visitors arrive they must sign the Palau Pledge, which is stamped into their passports. It's a promise to be a respectful and conscious tourist in an effort to preserve the natural beauty for generations to come. The hope is that natural wonders like jellyfish Lake will revive.
While it's a pity that Chinese are prohibited from visiting Palau for the time being, the island has embraced this turn of events by improving amenities and developing more luxury accommodations. The transition offers western visitors a chance to support those efforts and enjoy smaller crowds, all while exploring one of the most beautiful countries on earth.